We live in a pluralistic society with dozens of competing claims to truth. A bewildering variety of religions, philosophies, political ideologies and personal codes of conduct all attempt to convince us that they have special insights into reality and the proper way to live. To many people, the historic Christian gospel appears as just one more voice in the marketplace of ideas. All of this raises the question of why anyone should believe that what we have to say is any different. In other words, who is to say that Christians are right when we claim that the gospel is uniquely the truth?
Providing compelling reasons to people who question the Christian Faith is called Apologetics. We don’t have space in this article for more than a brief explanation of some of the more compelling pieces of evidence, so I will simply deal with some of the good reasons we have for believing the gospel under the following headings:
- The reliability of the Bible
- The amazing evidence for the Bible’s inspiration
- The compelling body of facts affirming Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and the risen Savior of the world.
- The Evidence of History and Archeology
- The startling transformation of the disciples of Jesus
- The unstoppable spread of the gospel across time and cultures
- The millions of supernaturally changed lives over the past couple of thousand years.
The Issue of the Bible
The first thing we must tackle is the issue of the Bible, and specifically:
- Is the Bible trustworthy as a document? That is, can we understand our current Bible versions as accurately representing the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments? To answer this question we must rely on the evidence of the manuscript tradition. And, along with that is another question–
- Is the Bible inspired by God? In other words, is the Bible more than just a collection of merely human writings? Put simply, can we discern the hand of God in the books of the Bible?
OK, back to the first part of this question: You may already be familiar with the fact that the Bible comes from the ancient scriptural writings of the Jews, mainly in Hebrew, and from the Greek writings of the early Church. As far as anyone knows, no actual documents from the original writers still exist. That means we must rely on ancient manuscripts copies of these original documents. But how do we know that when we pick up the Bible to read Genesis or Romans that what we are reading is a faithful and accurate representation of what was originally written by say, Moses or the Apostle Paul?
Old Testament Evidence. Let’s begin with a quick look at the manuscript evidence for the Old Testament. What Christians accept as the Old Testament, Jews have been using for centuries as their sacred scriptures. By the way, they don’t call it the Old Testament: they use terms like Torah, Tanach or simply the Hebrew Scriptures.
Until 1947, the standard Hebrew manuscripts available for making copies of the Old Testament were the Massoretic Texts. These documents, dating from around 900 AD, were used as the basis for making more current copies of the Old Testament. Since the conventional date for the writing of the books of the Old Testament is between 1400 and 400 BC, and the Massoretic Texts date from around 900 AD, that leaves an average of more than 1,500 years between the originals and the copies being used for Old Testament study and translation. In other words, there appeared to be lots of time for copyists to make copying mistakes, or even deliberate changes.
But the situation changed in 1947 with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated from before 100 BC and the collection includes every book of the Old Testament except Esther. So, suddenly we have manuscript copies a thousand years closer to the source.
These fragile manuscripts from well before the time of Christ have been compared with the Massoretic Texts in order to discover how much the material of Old Testament might have changed over centuries of copying. The result was the amazing discovery that little or no significant variation occurred in more than 1,000 years between the Dead Sea Scrolls (around 100 BC) and the Massoretic Texts (around 900 AD). It proved what Jewish and Christian tradition had always claimed: that Jewish scribes followed rigorous copying procedures to ensure accurate transmission of the text of the Hebrew scriptures.
New Testament Evidence. If we are encouraged by the evidence for the Old Testament, the evidence for the integrity of the New Testament is even better. The text used for study and translation of the New Testament is derived from literally thousands of early manuscripts. Just for starters, there are the more than 5,000 manuscripts in the original Greek in which the books of the New Testament were written.
To be fair, not all of these manuscripts are complete copies of the New Testament. Some are just fragments of books. But even so, this is an impressive amount of evidence. Add to this, the very early copies of the New Testament in other languages, which can be used for comparison with the Greek copies, This adds up to a total of more than 20,000 early manuscripts on which our current New Testament is based.
Latin Vulgate: 10,000+
If that were not enough, virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from quotes found in the writings of early Christian leaders (called the Patristic Writings). These date from the Second to around the Seventh Centuries AD.
What does all of this tell us? Just that we can be highly confident that what we are reading in our mainstream English translations (or Spanish, French—or any other language) is a highly accurate rendering of what was contained in the original documents of the Old and New Testaments.
The Issue of Inspiration
The Bible is littered with claims that it is much more than just the words of its human authors. In the Old Testament, some writers passed on messages directly from God. For example Isaiah 44:6, “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” In fact, the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” (or its equivalent) appears more than two thousand times in the books of the Old Testament. Others received messages from God in dreams and visions, while still other writers like Samuel and Ezra saw themselves as guided by God to record events in Israel’s history.
In the gospels, Jesus affirmed the infallibility of the Old Testament in Matthew 5:18 and he cited other passages as predicting aspects of his life and ministry. Verses like 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 affirm the Old Testament to be from God. Then in 2 Peter 3:15, the Apostle Peter refers to Paul’s New Testament writings like Romans and Galatians as being inspired in the same way as the Old Testament scriptures.
However, the Bible is by no means the only book claiming divine inspiration. The Qur’an of Islam, the Book of Mormon and a variety of other religious books make similar claims. So, what evidence is there that the claims made in the Bible have any basis in fact? To answer this, we will look at the evidences of:
- Fulfilled prophecy, and of—
- The Bible’s uncanny insight into human nature.
Let’s take just the prophecies specifically fulfilled by Jesus:
- Jeremiah 23:5 says that the Messiah will come from of the family line of David. This is fulfilled in the life of Jesus in passages like Matthew 1:6 and Luke 3:31.
- Micah 5:2 gives Bethlehem as the place where Messiah will be born. Again, this is shown to be Jesus’ birthplace in Matthew 2:1. Some might bring up the fact that other of Jewish men in the First Century could make those claims. That is certainly true. Nonetheless, only those who could make these claims would have been candidates for Messiah. So, this shows that Jesus’ claims were at least valid.
- Messiah will be born of a virgin in Isaiah 7:14? Luke 1:26-35 claims this is fulfilled in the angelic announcement to Jesus’ mother, Mary. Again, some would point out that a virgin birth would be hard to prove. Granted, but on this point there is independent evidence that there was indeed some irregularity about Jesus’ birth. Oddly enough it comes from a source not exactly positive toward Jesus or Christianity–the Talmud of ancient Judaism. It says, in reference to Jesus’ birth: “His mother was Miriam (note—we call her Mary), a women’s hairdresser. As they say, ‘This one strayed from her husband’.”
The Talmud says in another place, also speaking of Mary, that she was, “… the descendant of princes and governors, who played the harlot with carpenters.” In other words, it was a well-known fact that Jesus birth was unusual.
Let’s move on to some things that would clearly be far-fetched for Jesus to fulfill through his own efforts:
- According to Isaiah 50:6, the Messiah will be beaten and spit upon. This was fulfilled in Jesus’ experience according to Matthew 26:67.
- His hands and feet will be pierced: predicted in Psalm 22:16 and fulfilled in Luke 23:33.
- His clothing will be divided by casting lots; predicted in Psalm 22:18 and fulfilled in John 19:23-24.
- His bones will not be broken: this is predicted in Psalm 34:20 and fulfilled in John 19:33.
- His side will be pierced, according to Zechariah 12:10. This is fulfilled in John 19:34.
One statistician calculated that the odds of Jesus accidentally fulfilling just eight of the more than sixty prophecies attributed to him would be on the order of 1 in 10 to the 17th power (that’s 1 in 10 with 17 zeros behind it). Plainly stated, the chances are simply astronomical [Peter Stoner in Science Speaks].
The Evidence of History and Archeology
How about the many historical and archeological confirmations of the Bible? Those who question the Bible sometimes ask questions like: “Don’t history and archeology show that the Bible contains significant errors, which bring the entire Christian Faith into question?”
Fortunately, many claims made by the Bible can be tested historically. People, places and events mentioned can be directly confirmed through various types of inquiry. For instance:
- The strange three-hour period of darkness which Matthew 27:45 describes as covering the land at Jesus’ death, and which is referenced to Amos 8:9-10. But can this be believed? The claim that darkness covered a significant portion of the Mediterranean world between noon and 3:00 pm on the day Jesus was crucified might seem a bit hard to believe. And yet there are those very intriguing references to such an event in non-biblical Roman sources.
For instance, the Second Century Greek author Phlegon, is quoted in the writings of Origen [Against Celsus, Book 2] as saying, “During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.” Another mention of this event comes through the Third Century author, Julius Africanus who says concerning this mysterious darkness, “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me…”.
So why would the writer Africanus consider a solar eclipse to be unreasonable as an explanation for the darkness during the crucifixion? The answer is because a solar eclipse can only occur when the moon is directly between the earth and the sun. But Passover season, when Jesus was crucified, only happens when the moon is full—that is with the earth directly between the moon and the sun. In other words, a solar eclipse was impossible at that particular time.
Over the past century or so, a growing body of archeological evidence has also given its support to the overall picture of Bible events and conditions. During this time, several prominent archeologists have become convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly tends to confirm the Biblical record. For example:
- William Foxwell Albright (dates), of John’s Hopkins University and Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, said this in his book, The Archaeology of Palestine: ”The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible…. has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.”
- Dr. Nelson Glueck (dates), world-renowned expert of the archeology of Palestine and President of Hebrew Union College put it this way, “..it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted (disproved) a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made, which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible.” Rivers in the Desert, pp. 31.
Here are some examples of archeological and anthropological confirmations of the biblical record:
- Legends of a catastrophic flood found among widely scattered ethnic groups worldwide cast an intriguing light upon the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9.
- The fact that Mesopotamia (parts of Iraq Iran and Syria) was the cradle of world civilization confirms the biblical account of early human culture from the early chapters of Genesis.
- Various ancient documents, such as the Ebla, Amarna and Nuzi Tablets both confirm and shed new light on various cultural practices of people mentioned in the Bible. (Thompson, pp.1654-55, 1633, 1883)
- In 1975 a clay seal surfaced, inscribed with the name of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, authenticating the existence of that biblical character.
- During archeological excavations in 1994 in northern Israel, workers found an inscription mentioning for the first time independently of the Bible, the Israelite royal House of David.
- Archeological findings at Delphi in Greece authenticate the words of Acts 18:12-17 that Gallio was governor of the city of Corinth in 51 AD. No mention of this fact had been available until this discovery at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
Moving on to evidence that might be described as more psychological, the Bible has what I would call a supernatural knack for accurately describing human nature. In example after example, it accounts in realistic detail, as no other religion or philosophy does, for the heights of our nobility as well as the depths and extent of our degradation.
Take for instance the case of King David who, in the book of Psalms, wrote some of the most moving devotional poetry ever composed, and yet who also deliberately committed sins of adultery and murder. I could cite numerous other examples from the lives of Abraham, Moses, Peter and others whose lives are praised for their faith and heroism but who also had very typical human failings.
What does this tell us? It seems to me pretty clear that the Bible realistically portrays human behavior. It also tells us that God is truly gracious in using real people to accomplish his will and in his urgency in redeeming us. In other words, the biblical accounts ring true as they show real people relating to God.
Given the Bible’s inspiration and reliability, we can go on to make a case for other aspects of the Historic Christian message. For example:
- The miracles of Jesus are a powerful indication that his claims of being the Son of God were valid. The Gospel accounts show Jesus doing things no one has done before or since. With a simple word, he healed the sick and raised the dead. He walked on water and turned water into wine.
Certainly other religions make claims that their founders worked miracles. But the way in which the Gospels depict Jesus as doing the miracles and then downplaying the sensational effects they generated, certainly says that these events were performed by someone extra special and that they were performed for purposes which have nothing to do with common publicity value.
Then of course there is the resurrection. Here is a topic worthy of discussion all by itself. The resurrection is the supreme evidence that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. From a historical point of view, it is clear that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Even his enemies agreed about that. But their explanation that Jesus’ disciples overpowered the guard and stole the body doesn’t fit with the demoralized spirit of the disciples at the crucifixion. It doesn’t fit with their initial unbelief when the women announced that his body was missing. Neither does it account for the dramatic change in the behavior of these disciples or the astounding growth of the early Christian movement.
The incredible impact of the Jesus’ resurrection shows that his crucifixion did achieve reconciliation with God and the making of a new humanity.
- Let’s move on to consider the absolute conviction of the Apostolic generation. Nearly all of them were willing to die horrible deaths for the message they proclaimed. The argument has been made in numerous other settings that it makes no sense whatever that men would willingly die such deaths if they knew (or suspected) that their message was false. Yet they remained unshakeable to the end. That fact communicates huge confidence that the gospel message is truthful.
- How about the impressive basic consensus of the Christian community which transcends generations and ethnicities. Whether it was the unprecedented coming together of First Century Jews and Gentiles through the redemption of Jesus, or the gospel’s appeal in the Early Middle Ages to the barbarian tribes of Europe, or its spread in more modern times to the diverse peoples of every continent, the message of Jesus resonates in every time and culture.
So the Christian message is not tied to a certain group of people or a particular era in history. It is truly trans-cultural and adaptable to a variety of peoples and situations.
- That brings us to a final piece of evidence: the changed lives of millions upon millions of individuals over the centuries. I could relate the stories of people like Augustine who changed from a philosopher critical of Christianity to the greatest defender of the Faith during those dark years when Rome was collapsing. Then there is John Newton, who was actively involved in Britain’s slave trade during the late 1700s, but who was transformed into an opponent of slavery and an advocate of God’s amazing grace.
These examples represent thousands more. In fact, the kind of proof for Christianity which is compelling to average people, isn’t the somewhat technical material we discussed earlier, but the truly changed lives of real believers living among us.
This is just a fraction of the evidence Christians can point to supporting the claims of Christianity. A complete course in apologetics includes much more extensive evidence and arguments for the Christian Faith. But let’s be realistic: none of the evidence is absolutely irrefutable. There will always be arguments against any of the points we could make.
But then, for nearly everything in life, fool-proof evidence is hard to come by. Even in our courts of law, jurors are asked to decide difficult cases based upon evidence that is merely “beyond a reasonable doubt”. So what I have presented may simply be dismissed by those heavily committed to other points of view. It boils down to this: I believe that, taken together, the evidence for the Christian faith is compelling in a way, which no other religion or “rival gospel” can match. In other words, the evidence for Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world authenticates itself in every area of human inquiry and experience. That means we can share the good news about his with great confidence.
Michael Bogart (I owe much of the data for this article to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell.)